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Embedded Journalists Bring War into America's Living Rooms - 2003-04-02


The Vietnam conflict was sometimes called "the television war" because it brought scenes on the battlefield to the living rooms of millions of Americans. But the reports from Vietnam were often recorded on film which had to be flown out of the country, edited and then broadcast days later.

Today, scenes of Baghdad bombing or fire-fights from the Iraq war arrive immediately on television, night and day. Adding to the "you are there" feeling is the embedded journalists program, in which reporters accompany soldiers as they engage in warfare.

Americans have been fed many so-called "reality" shows on television in recent years from adventure-filled game shows to amateur talent contests. But with the start of the Iraq War, American University professor M. J. Bear says television viewers are now watching a much different kind of reality with reporters as "characters" in a possibly deadly pursuit.

"I think the war is the latest reality show. We're seeing things live; we're getting to know people very intimately," said Professor Bear. "If you watch a particular channel, you become really involved with the reporter. So if you're a Today show viewer, you are wondering if reporter David Bloom is going to be okay - I think he's with the 3rd Infantry - as he brings the story up close and personally. We're getting a really interesting glimpse: he's one character. Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld may be another character. The POWs and their families are another set of characters. So, it's unfortunately the latest brand of reality TV programming."

The idea of putting reporters among the troops fighting a war may appear to present reality, but as former Wall Street Journal White House correspondent and TV commentator Ellen Hume suggests, it's a limited reality. "Yes the embedded program is a step forward, but it's only a very limited part of the picture. Is it better to have nobody with the soldiers, which is part of what happened in Afghanistan, and we still don't know what happened in the crucial battles?" said Ms. Hume. "There's a lot of propaganda out there, one side or the other, saying Americans are responsible for some atrocities that went on or are not responsible. If you don't have anyone on the scene, no one from America is going to trust the information they get about that.

"If you have embedded journalists, there's a reality quotient there," she continued. "But it's not the meaning quotient, and it's not the entire reality. I would never rely on that part of the journalistic press corps for information about how the battles are going or what they mean. But I certainly think it's better to have more journalists than fewer. Are they too close to the story? Of course they are. They're really just an arm of technology; they're giving us eyes and ears. But the reporting per se is just 'scene-setting.' It's not strategy and it's not meaning."

Professor Bear of the American University suggests the limited reality presented by embedded journalists may be a result of friendships and interdependencies.

"I think there's no question when you spend 24-7 with people, you become very friendly with them. I think it's extremely difficult to be detached especially with television, where there's a camera and microphone. Sound and visuals are so intimate that you do feel a sense of comraderie. I also think that the difference with TV is that you actually see the reporters in the exact same uniforms that the military are in. That makes it very difficult to distinguish who is a reporter. They have a microphone maybe, and a camera with them. Other than that, they look like a soldier."

About 500 correspondents are participating in the "embedded" program including nearly all the major American and British newspapers and broadcast networks, and even al-Jazeera TV. Additionally, there are nearly 1,500 independent or "unilateral" reporters.

Professor M.J. Bear says they have their own challenges covering the war.

"On the one hand, you think you can go out and get more independent coverage. On the other hand, it's extremely dangerous. As some crews that have gone from Kuwait to Iraq have found, they may be able to get images and interviews that they couldn't do if they were an embed. It's really a two-way street. Right now, almost all the information we're getting on the war is from the government whether it's the U.S. government, the British government or the Iraqi government. It's very hard to distinguish what is not propaganda."

Another American University professor, Pat Aufderheide, concludes that war coverage is a give-and-take proposition.

"There isn't any good way for journalists to cover the war. Inevitably, you have to come into some kind of close relationship with the military," the professor said. "Is it good to be excluded? No. Is it good to be a hostage to the process, which is what you are when you're embedded? No. At the same time, journalists have a real obligation to consider national security," said Prof. Aufderheide. "A journalist who reveals troop movements at a time that will jeopardize a military campaign, is actually taking sides in a conflict. I don't think they're nice, easy, neat answers here. We hope they maintain their standards of independence in a situation which inevitably they're dependent."

M.J. Bear says another problem with the Iraq war coverage may be the quantity of it. "One of my colleagues yesterday said, 'The war needs an editor.' We're seeing a ton of amazing images that we've never seen before. It's all live. Most of it is not really edited in terms of what's being put on editorially. We're getting a really interesting glimpse but they're some pitfalls in the glimpse that we're getting from all this dominating live coverage, mostly on the cable news networks at this time."

About future war coverage, M. J. Bear said, "Short term, we're already seeing that we're already tired of the war. You saw the numbers of people going to the movies this past weekend; people were looking for a diversion. No matter what side you're on whether pro-war or anti-war, it's still upsetting. In a long-term view, I think you'll see our consumption of news changing dramatically. We now want everything immediate, packaged, up close and personal."